Dan and I have been married for a little under a month, and while it’s been relaxing and joyous – how can you not experience relaxed joy in the Italian countryside? – the attention lavished on our lawful coupledom has been set against the national backdrop of gun violence, sports coverage, and chicken. We were on the last leg of our honeymoon in Venice, getting drunk on complimentary Prosecco and slow-mo air freestyling (there was a BBC special on about what made Olympic swimmers’ strokes so effective, how could we not try it?), when news of the Aurora shooting broke. My shock could only be expressed with a finger strumming my lips and an underwater voice: “Dan, bwhat bthe bfuck?”
And then Dan Cathy's Baptist Press interview. We were still unwrapping Le Creuset pots and untagging ourselves in compromising wedding pics when waffle fries became anathema to gay rights. We were still trying to figure out how we ended up with two identical picnic baskets and whether or not it might be more practical (albeit less romantic) to each have our own, when it became apparent that Chick-Fil-A was a crucible for civil liberties. I surprised myself with a flashback. Maybe because Olympic build-up was happening concurrently with chicken let-down, I remembered the time I was called a boy by a Taco Bell employee. I was 8 or 9. I had just come from a swim meet where I’d been bested in yet another event –100 breast, 50 free, it hardly matters now – and with damp spikey androgynous hair and a flat chest, looked like Ricky Shroder. “What would he like?” the Taco Bell cashier had asked my parents, and no one (including me) bothered to speak up and correct him. Instead, we all laughed like this was a Shakespearean comedy, like mistaken gender was a subplot.
We choose to say and not say on a daily basis. I am both indecisive and reticent, and a maker of quick-fire gut proclamations: “I’m taking up harmonica!” or “I’m never eating Chick-Fil-A again!” The first time I disavowed Chick-Fil-A was when I looked up the fat content of a small coleslaw: 31 grams. I became the town-crier of buttery-bun banning. I typed up an email to a co-worker with the header “I slaw the light.” My enthusiasm was largely a result of boredom, and I was back at the drive-through a mere month later. But this time, walking away is different, permanent. I want to take a minute to explain why.
I’m not primed to defend gay marriage because I once had my own identity off-handedly dismissed under fast food fluorescents. I want more than anything the gift of calm, articulate rationale – the ability to prolong the moment before gainsayers gainsay. I want to walk up to the mother and daughter at Kroger sharing an extra large styrofoam Chick-Fil-A beverage and explain, without a quiver in my throat, why this boycott is so important, why it matters. I keep repeating the phrase “condensed facts,” hoping that if I can just distill the essentials, if I can just redact to the beating heart of it, the other side will listen.
There’s this: a civil union is not the same as a civil marriage. (You can read a comprehensive list of differences here.) Couples who have entered into a civil union are denied the federal benefits afforded to married couples. Think limited tax breaks (having to file separate Federal returns), ineligibility for social security survivor benefits (the Federal government doesn’t recognize your partnership), and even the potential to be refused hospital visitation or medical-decision making (you’re just a friend). Eating a spicy chicken sandwich isn’t about semantics. Gay people shouldn’t have to settle for civil unions because civil unions are second-string.
And this: it isn’t about devaluation of a traditional term. No matter your religious beliefs – and I really do endeavor to respect all walks of faith, and I find devotion admirable – the argument that the Bible defines marriage as solely between one woman and one man is a red herring. Legally, marriage is a cultural and social institution. It’s an official commitment sanctioned by the government, frequently (but not always) entered into with deep religious feeling. God doesn’t have to be present for a marriage to take place. Straight couples can tie the knot skydiving, with a justice of the peace strapped to the groom’s back, with the plan to land and consummate on a pentagram. Not all marriages are rooted in Christianity, and the state can’t force a minister to marry a gay couple.
Dan and I wed four weeks ago in a ceremony with all the trappings of Judaism, but no actual mention of God. This was a deal breaker when choosing our officiant. We went with Dan’s childhood rabbi, who was receptive to our piecemeal vision. Religion for us isn’t binary, it isn’t either/or. I’m a former Presbyterian who practices bikram and believes in Panspermia, alien abductions, and negative capability. My husband is a poet atheist who feels an abiding connection to Jewish traditions and community. He also happens to be the most moral person I know. Sometimes I still converse with omnipotence in my head, which maybe makes me agnostic, but I have trouble differentiating this from OCD: “Count those stairs and nothing bad will happen. Today.” Dan just converses kindly, empathetically, with the living.
Our ceremony featured a ketubah, a chuppah, the sheva brachos, and a whole host of other Jewish elements that I needed to look up. In pre-wedding Skype sessions, our wonderful rabbi would occasionally mention God like a long lost relative we might consider calling, but the one major spiritual thing Dan and I agreed on was how much we didn’t connect to that name, God. I realize that to some people this makes us heathens and categorically disrespectful, but for us it was just the opposite: by not outsourcing our agency, it enriched our sense of commitment. In a ceremony devoid of a historical God, we promised to bless each other and the world with our best selves. This was spiritual.
For me, the pickle that broke the bun’s back was reading Cathy’s explicit interview, and the secondary articles that interview led me to. I’m no longer patronizing Chick-Fil-A because I don’t want to support a company whose charitable arm, funded by company profits, donates to organizations that foster hate and homophobia. Because I don’t think gay people need reparative therapy. Because I believe gay marriage should be legal, and Chick-Fil-A funding hinders rather than helps the advancement of equal rights. Because my very best friends are gay. I’m also someone who understands my limitations. To those who point out the hypocrisy of giving up waffle fries when we’re still buying gas and literally fueling OPEC’s human rights violations, I can merely offer the following: “Look, I’m trying.” Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something, or that your efforts are feckless. I believe this down to my core, and I’m mostly a pessimistic misanthrope who can’t see the glass half-empty or half-full because I’m too worried that it’s made of polycarbonate plastic.
Last week, when I brought up my honeymoon to explain my prolonged work absence, an acquaintance assault-hugged me, clapped her hands, then said, “I want to hear all about it, but we’re about to head to Chick-Fil-A for lunch!" I’m lauded daily for getting married, a right I didn’t earn. Strangers get downright giddy. They ask about the trim on my veil and the color of my plates. And me? I saturate FB with wedding-related status updates and have a tendency to gesture with my ring finger. I’m actively encouraging this attention. While our nation is wrestling with gay marriage, I’m wrestling (and have been for quite some time, shout-out to therapy) with what marriage means to me on a personal level. If Kim Kardashian can spent 10 million on a wedding and only stay married 72 days, but a gay couple in a partnership of 15 years can’t go to city hall and legalize their union, then what is so compelling about "marriage” anyway? We’re watering it down. We’re kidding ourselves if we think marriage is about preserving the traditional definition of family. Dysfunction doesn’t discriminate. It seeks out the children of straight, still-together parents, too.
Dan and I lived together for four years before getting engaged. During that time, people slung unsolicited advice at us. The dominant message was that we needed to marry, the sooner the better. An unhappy co-worker filing for her own divorce suggested I give Dan an ultimatum. My cousin warned that if Dan could get the milk for free, he would never buy the cow. I even had a Disney phone representative go off script to sing the praises of wedlock (he also begged me to reconsider Dan as a viable long-term candidate, since Dan hates Disney). And yet: I love being married.
Marriage hasn’t changed my relationship with Dan, but it has changed our relationship with our community and with our country. Sometimes we’ll be alone and one of us will turn to the other and make a fist and the other will make a fist in response and we’ll bump rings and go “boom!” or “dun dun!” like the sound the Law and Order gavel makes. Yes, this is dumb. We’re not doing it in celebration of the legal rights conferred upon us. Let me correct myself: the fight for gay marriage is also about semantics. Marriage is a word that resonates emotionally with Americans, and it'sa word that I believe all couples should have access to should they choose that particular path. I hear the emphatic hard “g” at the end followed by the silent “e,” and I think of public governmental approval rounded out by what will always win out in the end and what can never be taken away – the private walled-off world of every gay (or straight) couple.